HERE IN AMERICA, Ethiopians who live in smaller cities and towns either shop for spices and other foods from back home in the nearest big city, or they have it sent to them by relatives in Ethiopia. But big-city Ethiopians can usually find a gebeya (market) that sells everything they need, and lately, that includes more and more products being prepared in America.
Now those growing options include, for the first time, frozen Ethiopian cuisine, the innovation of a Woodbridge, Va., company that’s making Tolo-Tolo Wot, along with such things as berbere, senafitch (Ethiopian mustard) and niter kibbeh (spiced clarified butter).
It’s the enterprise of Wondossen Lakew, a computer engineer who came to America from Ethiopia in 1980 to escape the brutal communist dictatorship. All of his family eventually came over as well, and the frozen dishes he offers in his Tolo-Tolo Wot line are based upon his mother’s recipes. Tolo is the Amharic word for “fast,” so it’s an appropriate name for his food, although he did consider Enat Wot. That’s the word for “mother.”
In English, Wondossen calls his company Authentic Ethiopian Cuisine, but its Amharic moniker is Yagermoya, a word that’s somewhat tricky to translate. Ye is the preposition “of,” and agar means “country.” Moya means “profession” or “skill.” Referring to a man’s moya means his job, but when Ethiopians refer to a woman’s moya, it almost certainly means her culinary expertise. So “in the case of Yagermoya,” Wondossen explains, “most Ethiopians would associate the word with skillfully prepared food.”
Yagermoya prepares its frozen meals at commercial kitchens in Virginia. Wondossen is the primary hands-on chef, along with a few helpers. Right now he offers yemisir wot (spicy lentils), kik wot (spicy yellow peas), doro wot (spicy chicken), bozena shiro (spicy pea powder stew), quinche (cracked wheat porridge), siga wot (beef stew) and fosolia (green beans and carrots). Each one comes in an individual serving and includes three individually wrapped pieces of injera to make a compete evening meal. He gets the injera fresh each day from local bakeries and freezes it immediately to retain its moisture, so it will reheat well.
Wondossen began test marketing Tolo-Tolo Wot’s first three selections earlier this year in a few markets around Washington, D.C., and its surrounding Maryland and Virginia suburbs. During this trial period, he looked for feedback about taste and demand, and he got it: Customers seem to favor the yemisir wot and doro wot but not so much the kik wot.
Wondossen now sells his frozen food online at his own website, and because the company is small and just starting up, he makes all dishes fresh to order, which means you’ll get your food within three to five days of ordering it. The food arrives packed in ice and insulation, during which time “it gets there a little bit thawed, but not too bad.” The shipping is about half the cost, but the product itself isn’t too expensive to begin with. “It’s really for people who like it and have no access to it, or who want to experiment with it,” he says.
The company will ship anywhere, but right now, Wondossen says he’s “focusing on potential customers in neighborhoods around D.C.,” like Montgomery County in Maryland and Fairfax County in Virginia, nearby places to which shipping is must less costly. “These would be folks who have experienced and developed a taste for Ethiopian food but don’t necessarily want to go to areas like U Street in D.C.,” he says.
Wondossen hasn’t given up his day job yet, but he’s considering his options. “First it was just a passion,” he says of Yagermoya. “I wanted to bring something to the market that was different. But now I’m gradually moving into doing this.” His other products – the senafitch and the niter kibbeh – have sold consistently, if not spectacularly, in markets around the D.C. area, even though Ethiopians often make these things themselves or get them from back home. He makes two kinds of kibbee: regular for everyday cooking, and a special kibbee for kitfo that has more koseret (Ethiopian cardamom).
And why would Ethiopians buy frozen food with so many restaurants around the D.C. area, or when they could make it fresh themselves?
“It’s a fast world,” Wondossen says, “and people want to go home and relax and eat. If you’re in a hurry, it’s a very affordable, easy-to-prepare food. And besides, cooking Ethiopian food is not such an easy thing.”
Among Ethiopian food companies in the United States, Yagermoya certainly has the most innovative product line. But with the growing popularity of Ethiopian food – and the growing Ethiopian population in America – there are some other entrepreneurs out there.
♦ Addis Kolo, also located in Woodbridge, Va., sells eight-ounce bags of this crunchy Ethiopian snack, a mixture of roasted barley, chick peas and soybeans. One variety is plain, and one is spicy. It’s sort of like an Ethiopian trail mix.
♦ Eleni’s Kitchen sells its original kulet, a berbere-based simmer sauce for creating spicy Ethiopian dishes.
♦ Selam Foods. Located in California, Tesfa Drar’s company brings seeds from Ethiopia to grow teff and barley on about 2,000 acres in Sacramento. The company then mills the grain and sells it as flour. Tesfa worked for Cargill for 18 years and did experimentation with teff in university labs. The company also sells basmati rice and Ethiopian coffee.
♦ Maye Trading. Located in Alexandria, Va., Muluken Mahari’s company imports teff and spices from Ethiopia for sale to markets in the United States. The company names comes from the initials of his wife and children.
In the early 1990s, before the Washington, D.C., area had so many Ethiopian markets, Muluken made injera and sold it at Indian and Middle Eastern grocery stores, where Ethiopians often shopped for spices and other goods. Muluken mixed his injera batter himself, but there weren’t enough Ethiopian women to work in his kitchen, so he hired “Spanish girls” to swirl the batter onto mitads. After a while he opened a restaurant, Kokeb, at 14th and U streets, the first in a neighborhood that now brims with Ethiopian food and culture. He closed the place after seven or eight years because, he says, “I couldn’t handle it, too much work, quite a headache.”
Muluken now lives in Virginia and Ethiopia, where he began to return a few years ago to explore business opportunities. Maye Trading grew from that endeavor. He came to the U.S. in 1973 to go to college, and he only recently returned home to do business because, even in the years after the brutal Communist dictatorship fell in 1991, the business climate in Ethiopia was “not very inviting.” There’s more opportunity now, he says, although still with too many restraints.
University of Pittsburgh